Picture gallery at the bottom of the blog!
After three wonderfully restful days at home, I set out on the road again yesterday (5/5) morning. Needing to be in Alpharetta, GA by 4:30, I took off at 10:30am so it would be a leisurely drive. When I stopped at Manchester to get some water, I realized that I had gotten out of the house without my wallet. Well, that’s a problem. Leah was willing to bring it out to me and we split the distance; she came down I24 and met me at the Old Hickory exit to which I had backtracked. Finally made it to Alpharetta by 6:15.
Alpharetta was a growing northern suburb of Atlanta when I arrived fresh out of Princeton Seminary on July 1, 1986. The Presbytery of Greater Atlanta had purchased 10 acres – covered in pine trees – just out of the center of the town. Main Street and “the Square” was dotted with “nickel-and-dime” buildings, a phrase I had never heard, but the one used by Rick Wolters. Rick was on the Presbytery’s New Church Development Commission and was Rev. Frank Harrington’s right-hand-man assigned to help the Alpharetta NCD get off the ground. That meant, in the first instance, getting the new co-pastors oriented. After seeing what Alpharetta has become, with all of those “nickel-and-dime” buildings replaced by restaurants and hotels, a town park and new City Hall, and large residential developments in the downtown designed to let people walk to the shops and eateries, I am anxious to talk with Rick. It is overwhelming to think of what this city on the northern edge of Fulton County has become over the nearly 40 years.
Dear friends, Jim and Barbara Simmons graciously hosted me last night. It is hard to imagine that we were all just 26 when we started the church together. They were newly married and had just moved to Alpharetta. Jim’s dad was a Presbyterian minister, and somehow, we got connected. They joined the church before we even began public worship.
We took the field July 1st and spent that month and August getting organized … renting an office, getting the first computer for the office, having signs made and put up, organizing publicity, running to Atlanta for meetings at the Presbytery, and beginning to recruit members. We also went back to our home churches to be ordained. Unfortunately, my dad had a medical emergency – a bleeding ulcer that required immediate surgery – so he couldn’t be at my ordination service. It took place in my home church on Sunday afternoon, August 10th, which was a steamy, thunderstorm filled, afternoon. Rev. Graham Bardsley, who had been my intern supervisor at Little Falls PC, Arlington, VA, came up with a group from the church; he left his lights on and his battery died, and he was soaked to the skin trying to get it jumped in the rain. I remember him repeating to himself, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters,[a] whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” (James 1:2-4)
Returning to Alpharetta we organized the folks we had recruited into 3 small groups of about 15 each where we did bible study and vision casting during September and October moving toward our first worship the first Sunday of November. We had a small house on property contiguous to Milton High School, where we had secured a 2-year lease allowing us to worship in the cafeteria. The third week in October we gathered all the small groups together and people were surprised there was more than just “me and thee” and we moved toward opening worship with momentum. Jim is one of the finest leaders I have ever met. A gifted businessman, he was president of his fraternity at Furman, is a sub 1 handicap golfer, and blessed with the highest degree of emotional intelligence of anyone I have ever known. Barb is ebullient, worked in national leadership with her sorority, and has amazing gifts at organization. They used to throw “Barnabas Parties” at their home and mix friends they knew from business and college with their new church friends, and we met and welcomed many into the life of the church through the interactions. They were youth group advisors and absolutely key leaders in the success of APC in the early days.
Jim and Barb have recently moved back to Alpharetta (though they spend ½ the year at their Naples, FL home) to be near their oldest, Alex, and her husband and, most importantly, their granddaughter. We looked through old APC photo directories and when Alex brought her daughter over for Jim and Barbara to watch, we were able to show her an old church photo where she was younger than her two-year-old daughter. So many fun connections and memories. Their other daughter, Rachel, was recently married in my former church, Covenant, Charlotte.
Jim took me out to see how Alpharetta has grown and changed and we ended up at the roof-top restaurant of a high-rise overlooking the newly transformed downtown. It was Cinco de Mayo, so the restaurant was slammed. There was a section for people to sit without reservations, and Jim and I were looking at tables like hawks waiting for someone to indicate a readiness to move. A fabulous server saw us and clued us in that two guys at a 4-top had just asked for their check and suggested we move closer to claim the table. They were not quite finished but invited us to take the empty chairs. Jim immediately drew them into conversation, bought them another round, ordered enough food so they could share and soon Brian and Joe were drawn into our conversation and fellowship. Salve amice again. After they left, Jim’s friend, Mike, joined us. A recent widow, they had been HS buddies and he had joined Alpharetta Presbyterian during my time. It was wonderful to catch up again.
Being with Jim and his openness and awareness of others took me back to those early days at APC when Alpharetta was a sleepy town just getting ready to wake up. Being able to see it from the top of the building showed me how much had changed over the years, but being with Jim also made me remember the things that are constant: Koinonia and compassion. Thanks be to God for such a day.